BETHEL ISLAND -- Every second counts when a home is burning, and some residents here are giving themselves that gift of time.
Over the past three years, clusters of neighbors have installed 18 pipes reaching from the San Joaquin River to the levee encircling the tiny community so that firefighters can draft any extra water they need faster.
Known as "dry hydrants," the stationary 6-inch PVC pipes range in length from about 40 feet to 80 feet and can channel water at the same rate as a fire engine's pump -- up to 1,500 gallons of water per minute, said longtime resident Mark Whitlock.
He's been leading the charge to set up these conduits on the island since a three-alarm fire in September 2008 destroyed two homes on the road where he used to live.
Bethel Island's approximately 2,100 residents are particularly worried about the danger of fire, in part because of the lack of conventional water hydrants.
Most residential areas have never had any, and the five ones along the main road through town were taken out of action in summer 2010 when the pump that serviced them was removed during the reconstruction of Bethel Island Bridge.
Adding to their concerns is that firefighters' response times have increased significantly since the island's fire station closed July 1, a casualty of budget cuts.
Although each fire engine arrives with a water truck to supplement its supply of water, when those reserves run low, crews have two choices: Replenish their tanks from a hydrant about 1½ miles off the island near the intersection of East Cypress and Bethel Island roads -- a potentially disastrous diversion when time is of the essence -- or pump water from the Delta.
If an engine company opts for the river, dry hydrants are a more efficient way to get the water where it needs to go, said Chief Hugh Henderson of the East Contra Costa Fire District.
For starters, firefighters don't lose time clambering down the jumble of rock buttressing the outer side of the levee to put a hose in the water -- the pipe is already there, he said.
"It speeds up the process of getting water out of the Delta," Henderson said.
The process also is faster because crews need to connect only one section of their hose to the end of the pipe, he said. Hoses are stored on an engine in 10-foot lengths, so making one long enough to reach the water requires firefighters to join several segments, Henderson said.
These two aspects of dry hydrants enable crews to start spraying a fire in about half the time, he said.
In addition, they extend farther into the river than firefighters' hoses might be able to at low tide, Henderson said.
And once an engine can hook its pump up to a hydrant, it not only can douse burning structures on roads parallel to the levee, but it can also convey that water to other engines, thereby extending fire crews' reach, Henderson said.
Despite the advantages, the only time his men have used these hydrants since the first one was installed in February 2010 has been in training exercises because there haven't been any nearby when they've responded to blazes large enough to warrant their use, Henderson said.
Whitlock's goal is to change that by getting a dry hydrant installed approximately every 700 feet along the inhabited sections of Bethel Island's 11½-mile perimeter -- roughly 45 in all, he estimates.
To that end, he pitches the idea to homeowners in areas where it would be logical to install a dry hydrant, makes presentations at the levee maintenance district's board meetings and attends sessions of virtually every other local decision-making body with business on the island.
"Eighteen (hydrants) doesn't sound like a lot, but I have hours invested for every one of those out there," Whitlock said. "Unless I die, I will finish this. I will not quit."
Property owners served by three of the 11 private water companies on the island have voted to pay for most of the hydrants, which start at $1,500 for the 40-foot length of pipe that's typically needed. Two groups of homeowners and the San Joaquin Yacht Club have funded the remaining three.
Five more dry hydrants will be going in over the next six weeks, Whitmore said.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.